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With trade for David Lough, Orioles' puzzle in left field beginning to take shape

Over the past two days, the Orioles have filled two needs -- signing right-hander Grant Balfour to become the new closer and trading for outfielder David Lough to help fill the team’s need for a left-handed hitter in left field.

I like the deal for Lough.

It did cost the Orioles a capable hitter in Danny Valencia, who was one of the club’s hottest batters over the final month of the 2013 season. And while Lough gave the Kansas City Royals some spark last season, he isn’t yet the spark plug that Nate McLouth was atop the Orioles' lineup.

I’ve seen some fans who were extremely upset about losing Valencia. And even though Valencia established himself as a right-handed designated hitter, he was essentially a role player.

Valencia hit .385 (35-for-91) over the final two months of the season after hitting just .200 (14-for-70) from April to July. He came up with some big hits down the stretch, but any perceived value is based on a small sample size, essentially a five-week span.

The same essentially could be said about Lough, who hit .294 before the All-Star break last season. He was a part-time player with the Royals and would have been the odd man out in a crowded outfield in Kansas City.

But at 27, Lough is younger than the 29-year-old Valencia. And his splits show that he's more likely to help the Orioles on an everyday basis. He’s a rare left-handed hitter who hits better against left-handed pitching (.282) opposed to right-handed pitching (.277) over the course of his career.

He also fits Orioles manager Buck Showalter’s defensive-minded philosophy with a  1.3 defensive WAR, plus-14.5 ultimate zone rating, 15 defensive runs saved and eight total zone runs. That means he has above-average range and makes plays in the outfield that average players don’t.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette didn’t shut the door on the club acquiring another hitter, but it really looks like the left field puzzle has enough pieces between Lough, Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Henry Urrutia and Francisco Peguero.

It will be difficult for the Orioles to carry their Rule 5 pick, third baseman-first baseman Michael Almanzar, for the entire season like they have with Ryan Flaherty and T.J. McFarland the past two seasons. But trading Valencia made it a little easier. They couldn't afford to keep two similar role players.

Corner infielders are a little more difficult to hide on a major league roster, especially on a team whose starters at those positions play 160 games, like Chris Davis and Manny Machado.

At this point, the greater concern should be ensuring Machado is ready to return from offseason knee surgery in time for Opening Day. We'll see if Almanzar can make the jump from Double-A to the major leagues soon enough.

I hear you, fans.

It all looks like more bargain-bin shopping by the Orioles. But let’s face it: they’ve been good with it. Remember when the Orioles picked up McLouth off the scrap heap two summers ago and offered him a minor league deal? They also acquired Valencia from the Boston Red Sox for nothing more than cash.

It’s still obviously hard to swallow, especially when the Red Sox reload and the New York Yankees continue their spending spree. But the Orioles are still in the market for a starting pitcher, and that market likely won’t set at least until Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka’s situation is resolved.

It’s OK if the Orioles solve their situation in left field with Lough if they go out and get another veteran starter.

But the tell-tale sign could come next month, when we will begin to see if the Orioles are serious about trying to lock up one of their core players -- J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis or Matt Wieters.

Hardy, who is set to become a free agent after the 2014 season, is the most likely of the three to be extended. Davis and Wieters still have two years of being under team control, and both Hardy and the Orioles have expressed interest in going to the negotiating table.

So be patient, Orioles fans.

Sure, Shin-Soo Choo isn’t on the way, as of now, but if today’s moves allow the club to lock up Hardy -- or even Davis or Wieters -- tomorrow on a long-term deal, it is worth it.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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